Nic Cicutti: Aifa is in a critical state
Well, there we have it. If ever proof were needed of the weakness of an organisation - at least in the mind of the person supposedly leading it - it came with the resignation of Aifa director general Stephen Gay within months of taking up the job in the first place.
Harsh? Up to a point, perhaps. But it is worth remembering that this new appointment of Gay as the Association of British Insurers director of life, savings and protection will have been brokered weeks if not months ago, as Aifa’s boss presumably underwent a series of interviews to establish his suitability for the new job.
In other words, even as he was purportedly struggling with a diminishing budget and trying to establish some kind of refreshed identity for Aifa, Stephen Gay was already breaking bread with the ABI and proposing to jump ship.
Don’t get me wrong, there are times when all of us have found ourselves in a job we wish we hadn’t taken, when we realise we have made a mistake of massive proportions and wish we could get the hell out of there right away.
If there is anything to be said to Gay’s credit, it is the fact that he has not faffed about. He did the right thing for himself, if not Aifa, and he did it quickly and decisively.
What IFAs need to be clear about, however, is the consequence and the implications of Gay’s imminent departure. First, forget the pathetic attempts at self-hagiography in Gay’s departure statement.
Cutting an organisation’s budget is not rocket science. I have been at the sharp end myself and while emotionally challenging at times, what it ultimately involves is being brutal, sacking people and cutting back on photocopier paper.
Similarly, the much trumpeted claims that Aifa played a key role in the Financial Ombudsman Service decision to potentially increase from three to 25 the complaints it will consider before charging a fee is simply a gesture of realpolitik on the part of the FOS.
The key problem, which even the FOS realised, was that some IFAs were being swamped with claims and went into default.
As for “successful” lobbying of the Treasury select committee, by far the greatest part of the spadework was carried out by scores of individual IFAs, who submitted their own statements to the TSC, as well as a myriad other companies and trade bodies. And in any event, the lobbying was a failure, it failed to change minds at the FSA and advisers are still left with essentially the same regulatory landscape as before.
The brutal truth is that far from leaving Aifa in a healthier position than he found it in, with all sorts of mythical achievements now in place, the only current trade body for IFAs is now in a critical state.
The reason for that goes back far further than the past 12 months, although Gay’s resignation has brought it into sharp relief. Crucially, Aifa has failed to create a genuine vision of what it really stands for.
It had, and possibly still has, the potential to offer its own members - and the wider public - an alternative concept of a trade organisation with a passionate commitment to ethical independent advice, standing up for the interests of clients against the depredations of an industry which continues to rip them off.
Aifa should have been celebrating and publicising the efforts of scores of small IFAs, many of whom write to me, telling me how they work endless hours to resolve the problems caused to their clients by big banks and insurers, often for little or no financial gain. For them, genuine independence is a moral crusade not just a business decision.
Clearly not for Aifa. It has dumped its commitment to independent financial advice as being at the very core of its organisational structure. Within 12 months almost anyone, probably even me, will be allowed to join. The task of the organisation is presented as the dull and pragmatic one of “representing” all advisers responsibly within the corridors of power.
Such a message is not just boring, it also fails to articulate a role for advisers among the general public and within society, a role they can be proud of and which then gives them the ethical high ground to demand proper regulation of their side of the industry.
Those who appointed Stephen Gay will now be questioning how they could have made such an appalling error of judgment. In truth, the error did not lie in appointing someone straight from the life industry. It was the absence of an understanding of how to lead IFAs to a new promised land, as well as what it is and where it lies.
It is probably not too late to start again but time is fast running out.
Nic Cicutti can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org